Restless spirits speak at Old Baptist Cemetery ~ Hannibal, MO

Years ago, I watched an old cemetery caretaker locate occupied, unmarked graves using dowsing rods. George was a devout Christian, yet seemed to have no issues utilizing this bit of witchery to accomplish his tasks.
Last Wednesday, using the same technology, I conversed with some restless souls at old Baptist Cemetery in Hannibal.
It was ostensibly your standard haunted tour, with stops at various decaying structures and stories of “what happened one time” but I did NOT expect the tour to end this way.

It was hotter than Hades, with barely a breath of breeze stirring except when our tour trolley was in motion. There was the expected aforementioned stops and tour guide banter, but as the trolley struggled up the last hill to reach Old Baptist Cemetery, the energy changed. The evening cicadas sang and ancient headstones leaned drunkenly, if they stood at all. Years of obvious neglect had left it in a shambles, and the professional side of me cast a slight frown on the use of a cemetery for tourism, but all that vanished when the dead began to speak.
I got my pair of dowsing rods, grasping them as George had shown me years before, and cleared my mind of any expectation or anticipation.

Then they moved.

They aimed to my left so I turned and they straightened as I faced their desired direction. My footfalls were soft, deliberate as I followed each gentle swing of the rods. Finally, I found myself at a clump of shrubbery, with a jumble of headstones underneath.
The conversation was silent, all mental, with the rods speaking for the other side. If the tips touched, the answer was yes. If they didn’t move, it was no.

Is this where I’m supposed to be?
Yes

Are you buried here?
Yes

I wanted to take a picture of the stones, but it didn’t seem right to do so with asking.
May I take a picture of the headstones?
Yes.
I moved some branches aside and snapped a few camera shots, including the one above.

I didn’t know what to ask next so I turned and started to see where to check out next.
The rods quickly swung around, pointing back to the headstones I just turned away from.
OK, I thought. Unfinished business.

We aren’t done visiting yet?
No

Is there something I can do for you?
A pause…
Yes

I had a strange feeling coming about me… not necessarily sadness but more of gentle anger, if that makes sense.

Are you upset?
Yes

I wasn’t sure what to ask next. Then thought occurred:

Would you like me to say a prayer for you? (Now this goes against my heathen nature, but in days of old it was tradition to pray when visiting the graves of family.)
Yes

Are you a Christian?
Yes
I mustered out a prayer that this restless soul would find peace and rest in the next world.
I paused for a moment, thanked and bid farewell to this soul and turned to see if the rods would swing back that way.

They didn’t.

I had a shorter experience at some toppled markers along the tree line. In short, I think they just wanted their presence known.

Now, as this experience unfolded, I had memory of visiting a palm reader and spiritualist a few years back. As she touched my hands, she yanked them back almost immediately, almost as if she had gotten an electric jolt from me.

She seemed very unsettled and surprised as she stammered out a question.

Have you had a lot of relatives die recently?

Ummm nope.

She continued “I see death all around you” and it obviously didn’t sit well with her.

I smiled. I told her that it was probably my job.

And with that, she relaxed. That makes sense, she said.

She went on to say that I had a unusually large number of spirits attached to me.

Now that surprised me.

She explained that they were attracted to me because of the kindness I had shown them.

Them?

She smiled. Yes. Don’t you realize that very often you are the last person to touch their physical form on Earth?

I guess that I had never thought about it, but it sort of made sense.

She closed her eyes. There’s one in particular right out front. A little boy, 8 or 9, maybe. Dark hair. He’s very close to you.

At that moment, I realized exactly who she was talking about. One of the worst funerals I ever had to do. A true heart breaker. A nine year old who died in a house fire. His service was so stressful that I had started smoking again because of it.

I asked her if there were any spirits attached that I needed to be concerned about. She said no. No evil or ill intent found among them.

As I stood in that cemetery, I decided that I would ask if she was right.

Are there spirits attached to me?
Yes

Is one a little boy named Brian?
Yes

Are there any spirits attached that I need to worry about?
No

At that point, the tour guide summoned us all to return to the bus. Others with me had some experiences just as interesting. If you find yourself in Hannibal, take the tour. Place your skepticism aside and take a walk through Old Baptist with an open mind. Ask questions that only you know the answer too.

My guess is that you’ll find the answers among the tombstones.

24 hours in Heaven and Hell

jeepYou know, the past 24 hours have been such a whirlwind, I really don’t know where to begin…

So I guess that I will just begin at the beginning.

I was about to have dinner with a friend, when she got the call that every parent dreads.

A phone number that she didn’t recognize.

A frightened voice telling her that her daughter had been in a car accident.

As the fates would have it, the accident was a mere 100 yards from her front door.  We ran to the car and we could hear the sirens howling in the distance.  Panic crossed her face, as it would any parent hurling themselves headlong into this sort of surreal nightmare.

If we weren’t on the scene in less than a minute after hanging up the phone, we were pretty damn close.  And the scene that greeted us was nothing less than the very picture of what haunts parental dreams.  Brilliant flashing red and blue lights.  Smashed and twisted steel.  Concrete strewn with debris and moonshine diamonds of shattered glass.  Emergency vehicles racing up the road.  Screams of pain.  Glowing red road flares.

We dashed across the traffic lanes and were blocked by police until she heard her daughter screaming for her and she damn near lost it.  The officer relented, let her through and she fell to her knees next to her daughter who was being carefully tended to by the first paramedics that had arrived.  She was crying out in pain, the heart rending sound that makes a person feel so helpless.  Her mom was overcome and had to take a moment to gather herself so I knelt by the girl, holding her hand like the most fragile, delicate piece of glass I could imagine, saying every comforting and soothing word I could think of.  Kind hands on my shoulders as a fireman said “It’s ok, dad.  We are taking good care of her.”  I didn’t bother to correct him or clarify my status.  At that moment it seemed trivial.  Those same kind hands purposefully guided me away, giving them the space they needed to work.

I turned to the teenage boys that were with her in the car and who were pacing nervously, almost as if lost.  The story was coming in bits and pieces, but we managed to gather the basics but the penultimate detail was that the girl was ejected from the vehicle through a back window.  That was about all we had the chance to gather before the girl and her mom were loaded into an ambulance and fired off.

I stayed behind and tried to wrap my mind around what had happened.  I spied a shoe that the girl had been wearing left on the street.  I picked it up and searched for the other.   It wasn’t the only item missing from my sight.  As I looked at the car she had been in, I noticed that the right rear wheel was gone.  As was the tailgate of the car.  Not just flat, bent or damaged.  Fucking gone.  I looked all around and could not see them anywhere.  I wrenched open the battered driver’s door, grabbed the girl’s purse and found her other shoe still inside the car.

Incredible.  Surreal.  I was stunned as my mind pictured the immense impact and I couldn’t shake the horrible image of the girl flying out of the window in a glittering explosion of glass and winced as I pictured her body thumping against the pavement and coming to rest.  I dropped into the front seat of my car and lit a cigarette.  I closed my eyes and took a few moments  before I did the impossibly long (at least it seemed) drive to the hospital without the benefit of lights and siren or even a visual of the ambulance, but wasted no time nonetheless.

I parked the car and hustled into the ER Entrance.  As I approached the trauma room I saw swirl of scrubs and white lab coats.  Machines and monitors beeped, ticked and blinked.  Her clothes had been cut off and lay in a dejected pile on the floor.  I put my arm around my friend and did my best to keep her calm.  She described the ambulance ride as we stood just outside the room, as no space for even a single other person was available in the bustle of that room.

Minutes turned to hours to hours as staff gradually trickled out, their roles complete.  The girl seemed pitifully small on the hospital bed.  We took turns gently talking to her, delicately stroking her hair and reassuring her that we were still there and were not going anywhere while they rolled her to CT scans and paced until she was brought back.

Finally, around midnight, a relieved looking surgeon cataloged her injuries, a concussion, bruised bones and pulled muscles, cut and bruises and an ugly patch or two of road rash but nothing broken.  Nothing serious nor life-threatening.  She would spend the night in the hospital for observation purposes, but could go home in the morning.

Which in my humble opinion, is nothing short of amazing.

A few weeks ago, my youngest asked me if I still believed in God.  It brought to mind a scene from a movie where a fallen angel asks a man who once studied to be priest;  “Do you still believe?  Any of it?”  And the priest didn’t.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth, that life had battered that out of me over the past few years.  I didn’t want to break his little heart, so I told him that I still did.

I don’t know what to believe anymore, but dear reader I can tell you this I surely believe in miracles.  And when that girl shyly and hesitantly walked up to me (after I brought them home from the hospital) and wrapped her arms around me in one of the sweetest hugs that I had ever received, I knew that I was holding a living miracle at that moment.

In the midst of all of this,  I get contacted by a high school friend.  After texts back and forth, he tells me that his mother is dying.  A woman who was a second mom to me in those terrible awkward years of my life.  A woman who I had shared countless hours, cigarettes and RC colas with.

I pondered this crazy life of mine.  One moment joy and relief, and the next, sorrow.

And a few hours later, a simply worded text.  His mom had passed.  And all of the breezes that had filled my sails earlier vanished.  In a matter of hours I shall be sitting with my friend, doing my best to be the person that I need to be for them.  I will give them the gift of my time and my love and friendship.  The longer I live, the more I believe that those simple gifts are the only currency that don’t devalue.

And some day, I hope that this life will make some sense to me.  In the closing scene of the movie “Tombstone” Wyatt Earp is visiting Doc Holliday as Doc lay dying and Wyatt is lamenting his inability to live a normal life.  To which Doc replies:

“There’s no normal life, Wyatt.  There’s just life.  You’ll get on with it.”

Truer words seldom spoken.

I guess I’ll just get on with it.

 

My first almost girlfriend… rest in peace

Allow me to grovel at my extended absence from this blog.  Life had delivered a few sharp blows that sucked the wind right out of my writer’s sails…but today, I saw something that forced me back to the keyboard.

Sadly, it’s tragedy that brings me here.

Any of you that know me understand me as an awkward person.  Always have been.  Always will be to varying degrees.

In high school, I was even worse.  Exponentially so.

I never went on a date in high school.  No dances.  No movies.  No senior prom.  I was too painfully shy.

In my junior year, I was required to serve 3 weeks as a social service project.  I chose Children’s Hospital where I thought I could feed babies and pull little kids around on wagons… and I did those.

But I also met a beautiful girl my age there.

Her name was Shannon.

She happened to be very down to earth and friendly.

I was awestruck.

I looked for any excuse to hang around in her vicinity.

I talked to her.  Conversation came free and easy.

I screwed my courage up and asked her out on a date.

She said yes.

Fairy tales would have had us falling in love, complete with white picket fence and Volvo station wagon.

Ok… probably not a Volvo.  Her dad happened to own a Pontiac dealership.

But my life is no fairy tale.  And the date never happened.  Not through her own fault, but due completely to my own cowardice and insecurity.

I never followed through.  I never had the stones to call her and set up the date.

Every now and then, I would flip through a photo album and see photos of myself and a couple of high school chums in our blue volunteer vests hanging out at Children’s Hospital.  I even had a picture of Shannon and I in there.

I would smile.  What a silly, stupid kid I was.

And then today happened.

I was enjoying a gas station hot dog for lunch and flipping through the paper and a headline caught my eye.

“Funeral set for cancer patient beaten to death”

I started to read the article and dropped my hot dog in disbelief.

It was Shannon.

Now I hadn’t seen or spoken to her since then…but I was still sad and shocked.

She was seeking treatment for cancer in the Chicago area.  Sitting at a bus stop.  Some lowlife subhuman came up behind her and bashed her in the head.  For apparently no reason whatsoever.  Not robbery or anything else.  The guy simply ran off.

What the actual fuck is that?  What sort of piss poor excuse of a world is this really coming to?

She was on life support for about a day.

And died.

Died trying to fight death from another source.

A blogger friend of mine wrote a very popular post called “A Senseless Death”

Donnie, I have to compare this loss as just as senseless as the one you wrote about so beautifully.

Godspeed Shannon.  You’re with your dad now.  Watch over your family.

I am sorry for the way your life ended here.

 

 

 

Musings on Scooters and Frogs…

Years ago, I can remember the young, stupid, single & childless me boring some poor soul with ruminations of my ambivalence towards children and fatherhood.
But secretly, I was/am a baby FREAK.
My wife calls me out when she catches me mugging silly faces to coax a smile from an infant. Calls me a baby creeper.
My stepsister gave me the honorable moniker of “The Baby Whisperer.”

I do love me the little ones.

When my daughter (now a presumptuous 12 year old) was born, I made a quick run to buy a warmer for her diaper wipes. I was mocked by the wife, who asked if my daughter was too fragile for cold diaper wipes.
And she was.

I loved every diaper change. Every bottle. Every bath. Every Baby Einstein video. Every 2 am session in the rocking chair to put her back to sleep.

Her bright eyes and easy smile made her a dream baby. I would give her the bedtime bottle and rock away hours with her asleep on my ample belly, listening to Delilah on the radio, a silly smile on my face.
My Scooter. We wanted to be surprised, so we made everyone’s baby shower shopping a unisex pain in the ass. My father-in-law dubbed the baby in utero as “Scooter.”

It stuck. I still call her Scooter on those increasingly rare occasions that she wants me to hold her.
Scooter is now 5’7. Not quite as easy as when she was born (9lbs 5oz and 21 1/2 inches).
I never imagined that I would feel the love that I felt for her. I now know what some older guy meant when he said “I would hurt someone for my wife, but I would kill for my kids.”

A beautiful girl. A natural athlete. Neither of which she got from her old man.

Nineteen months after Scooter made the scene, a giggly baby boy showed up. Judging solely from his date of birth, my best guess is that he was a birthday present that I gave the wife. Yeah baby, the best gifts don’t cost money.

He was a surprise.
Actually, he was a gift. The souls of Chris Farley & Carl Sagan in a tiny package. He would walk into wall on purpose and just laugh.

He picked his own name. I wanted to name him Grant Preston. Wife wanted Samuel Joseph. We argued good naturedly for several months prior and several hours after his arrival. Finally I walked over to the hospital bassinet where he was chilling out and said, “OK pal, are you Grant Preston or are you Samuel Joseph?”
When I said “Samuel Joseph” he turned and looked at me. I shrugged my shoulders and told the wife that she won.

I love that little guy. We do guy stuff, and some of the best days of my life have been spent riding trains, building campfires, and philosophizing with this tender-hearted little oddball Buddha.

But that boy also has a pretty wide ornery streak in him. There were times during his toddler years that he would be so infuriatingly stubborn. I’d get so mad I would yell “You little FROG!”

It was strangely satisfying. All the benefits of cursing and none of the guilt. For those of you with kids, I highly recommend this method.

Except when he was learning to talk. I asked him what his name was. He looked up at me proudly and said “FROG!”

I scaled back my amphibious invective after that.

I fear the kind of world they are growing up in and especially the world that they will face alone as adults. It seems that every day, people invest immense energy to find new and better ways to be ugly and vile to each other. My heaviest burden is trying to teach them to love and respect others when “others” seem to be unresponsive or unworthy of it.

And, as one might imagine, I think of another child of mine. One that I never got to hold. One who died before he was born. Buried in a lonely grave in the shadows of the mountains that captured my heart and soul many years ago.
A little part of me died with him. He would have been 25 this October.

On this Father’s Day, I hope to forgo ugly ties and “World’s Best Dad” coffee mugs for some moments. Moments that I will carry along in the magical wagon that holds the jumbled up memories of their whirlwind infancy, toddlerdom, and early childhood.

My Scooter. My Frog. One girl. One boy.

One proud, worried and occasionally cranky dad. Looking to grab all of the moments that I can.

Happy Father’s Day to all of you dads out there.

Stand By Me…

I was fifteen years old when I saw my first dead human being… outside of the sterile environment of a funeral home casket, that is. Just like the slightly younger main character of the movie Stand By Me, which was based on a story by Stephen King.

Due to my profession, I have not only seen but handled hundreds of dead bodies. Young and old. Male and female. Rich and dirt poor. Clean, warm deaths in beds at home with family close and medicated comfort. Cold, nasty deaths with no warning on dirty pavement and fluttering yellow police tape.

In short, I’ve seen a lot.

But you never forget the first. I remember the sights, the smells, the temperature. Everything.

A bit of backstory: As a teen, I was a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, which is the civilian branch of the Air Force. One of CAP’s main missions is search and rescue. In fact, they run about 90% of domestic aircraft search and rescue operations in the country.

Several times during my time in, I was called away from home in the middle of the night to go find an aircraft that went missing, or chase the ghost of a distress signal from an aircraft’s ELT (emergency locator transmitter).

On my first time out, we found a plane. And a body.

I got the call around 8pm. Our team picked me up and off we went into the hills of Southern Missouri.

We drove up and down backcountry washboard roads chasing the ELT signal with our equipment.

But the damn signals bounce off the hills, diverting us off on several wild ghost hunts.

We drove and searched for about 10 hours, listening carefully for the signal to get stronger or weaker. I had the harsh smell of our search vehicle’s burning clutch stuck in my nose all night.

Just as we thought we might have triangulated the location, the signal would get weak or disappear completely.

You always have the hope that the planes occupants might just be sitting on the ground waiting for you to show up, maybe a little beat up or hurt. I could almost see the relieved look on their faces when they see us walking up.

As we bounced through the dark backroads and one hour vanished into the next, my hope faded.

Just after sunrise, the State Highway Patrol sent up a helicopter to the area that our signals were the strongest. Within an hour, they had located possible debris on a hillside a short distance from where we were searching. The chopper pilot had radioed in the location of a dirt road that would get us to within 100 yards of the site.

We flew down the highway until we found the road. A battered metal trash can lay discarded along the highway. We stopped so we could mark the road for the other teams and rescue personnel. I righted the can and tied my orange safety vest to it. I wasn’t moving as fast as I should have, dreading what was waiting for us down the road. A fellow team member hollered from the vehicle for me to hurry up, that people could be dying.

But I knew, somehow, that there was no grateful pilot waiting for us. I just knew it, but I can’t explain how.

We pulled down as far as we could. We humped our packs down to a clearing and started seeing pieces of metal. Not big pieces, but suitcase-sized.

And then I saw the fuselage with the full accordion treatment. I glanced up at the trees. There was no swath of broken branches or decapitated trees in any direction. So the plane didn’t glide into the trees, it nosedived right into the hillside.

My eyes scoured the terrain, looking for a victim. But I noticed that no one else was looking.

“Does anyone have eyes on the pilot?” I asked.

He’s about three feet to your left, under the fuselage, came the reply.

I had almost kicked him while I was walking past the wreckage. I knelt down in the dirt to look closer.

The impact had folded him up and driven him into the dirt. Only the back of his light blue nylon warmup jacket was visible. And the back of his head and neck. A single dried rivulet of blood had made its way from his hairline down to the jacket.

An instant death for a young pilot, 18 years old, with a freshly-minted pilot’s license that was doubtless somewhere in the mangled mess.

No matter how quickly we would have found him, the end result would have been the same.

And just like that, a life snuffed out like a candle. No more Christmas. No more birthdays. No more dreaming of the love of his life. No more hope for the future.

I was thankful that I didn’t have to see his face.

The next day, I was sitting at the dinner table with my parents, eating and watching the local evening news.

The pilot’s parents were being interviewed. They expressed their disgust at the length of time that it took to find their son’s body. Why wasn’t he found sooner, the mother asked.

I felt both of my parents looking at me, wide-eyed and silent.

I snapped the television knob to off and growled something about them not knowing what the hell they were talking about and how it wouldn’t have made a goddam bit of difference when he was found.

Strong language that I rarely if ever would have used in the presence of my folks.

They said nothing.

I stewed on it for a couple of days and then thankfully, my mind let the anger go.

But the memory remains.

And I am still thankful that I didn’t have to see his face.

The Demon Why

Yesterday, I read an amazing blog post by my friend, Don. You can find his blog at donofalltrades.com. Don is a good cop, maybe the best of them. He understands how compassion, kindness and humor can defuse and remedy a lot of the awful situations he faces every day. I admire him and his writing is superb, but I especially admire his ability to do a job that I once thought I wanted but realize that I don’t have what it takes.
His latest post is called “A senseless death” and by reading it, an all-too-familiar demon was summoned.
The demon “Why?”
Through my years as a funeral director, I have had many encounters with clergy of all faiths who have been unable to dispel this particular demon satisfactorily.
He’s a demon that I just can’t seem to shake.
I have one of those jobs that brings things into my life that makes me wrestle with “why” on a regular basis.

*Why does a 6 year old have to take a bullet from some sub-human and die?
*Why did two sons from the same family die a couple of years apart? Both of them under 40. In unrelated circumstances. Why did I have to try and bring comfort to their wonderful, loving parents who hugged me and handled the loss seemingly more at peace than I did?”
*Why did the mother of an 8 year old boy (whose death from cancer stirred emotion from even us weather-beaten old salts) get murdered only a year or so after his death?
*Why did the friends of my parents have to suffer the loss of 2 children? One from suicide and one from a car wreck?
*Why did all the prayers of so many people that were being said from my father’s dying wife have no apparent effect?

For all my conversations with clergy, the common theme seems to be faith.

And forgive the brevity of this post, but I am having a hell of a hard time keeping faith alive when confronted with the demon “why” every day. I don’t know how my friend Don holds it together when he sees even more than I do.